The startup founders of the mid aughts imagined themselves as heroic figures, creating an internet that would be more accessible and social than ever before. They got exactly what they dreamed of: an open, democratized internet. But instead of liberating and uplifting political discourse, the Silicon Valley era of mass politics has ushered in anger, anxiety, and dishonesty. Social media firms have found themselves scrambling to do damage control, summoned to testify in the Capitol and threatened with antitrust action by presidential candidates.
Now Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that Twitter will no longer be hosting political ads (the full plan will be revealed on Nov. 15). In a way, this decision is the platform’s response to Facebook’s light-handed approach to political censorship, an unsuccessful attempt to stake out a position of neutrality and an ineffective response (not that an effective one exists) to the fact that many people are liars, and that they often lie online. Focusing on political advertising only addresses one reason for the toxicity of online discourse, and fails to solve the basically insoluble problems of politics on social media.
But Twitter will still be an interesting test case for tech terms confronting the dangers of their increasing influence on politics. Facebook and Twitter are the two main nodes of online political discourse. They are also now opposing models of how Silicon Valley plans to handle the ways in which it’s changed politics.
The contrasting approaches of the two firms go beyond the uncensored, un-fact-checked maximalism of Mark Zuckerberg’s policies and Jack Dorsey’s decision to stay out of politics altogether. Each firm has a usership that leans left (in Twitter’s case) or right (as with Facebook’s). The decisions of content moderators in either firm, then, disproportionately affect one side or the other.
Facebook began as a platform for young people, but as the company has aged, so has its usership. Adults have taken over — the median age of a Facebook user is now approaching the median age of a Trump voter, a function of more Americans adopting social media. The discourse is far more likely than Twitter’s to lean right, due to demographics that are more representative of America.
For Twitter, the opposite is true: Pew Research found that the average Twitter user is younger, wealthier, better-educated, and, following America’s ongoing political realignment, significantly more liberal than the general population.
Twitter, however, has yet feature that distinguishes its experience from American political reality. Ten percent of its users create the vast majority of tweets; these users aren’t more liberal than the rest of Twitter, but far more political (and interestingly enough, much more likely to be women). Twitter, then, has a unique intensity to its user experience. The users who create almost all of the content represent a tiny portion of Americans.
But this small demographic encompasses most, if not all, American journalists, political writers, policy wonks, politically engaged academics, and politicians. This is why what Dorsey decides to do matters — Twitter’s influence is very narrow and very deep, affecting a tiny but disproportionately powerful segment of the population, contrasting with Facebook’s far larger yet less influential usership.
So the danger from bad actors poisoning political discourse by spreading outright lies, has different outcomes on the different platforms. It would be far too reductive to say that these would be right-wing on Facebook and left-wing on Twitter; there are plenty of liars of either party, on both sites.
Twitter has far more power to shape discourse, as the preoccupations of a small class of Americans can echo through the rest of the web, as well as traditional media. Of course, the narrative-forming power of Twitter is less related to ads than Facebook; they create much less revenue for Twitter. But not everyone on Twitter is a journalist. There are still plenty of ordinary Americans who are less likely to be skeptical about a politician’s claim, it’s just that viral freak-outs or mobs on Twitter are more likely to be caused by simple groupthink.
The same is not really true of Facebook; conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate fester inside closed Facebook groups, but there are few believers among those who create and identify media narratives (except, sometimes, the President. Gulp.). It is also impossible to prove what effect false political advertisements, many of which were on Facebook, had on the 2016 and 2018 elections. There is really no way to verify how many posts spreading false rumours or conspiracies were made by real users rather than bots; and it may be that Facebook was more a reflection of Americans’ political mood than a shaper of it.
This ambiguity also starts to get at the weakness of tech firms’ approach to tackling toxic online discourse by targeting paid political messaging. Advertisements are only small contributors to the general awfulness of politics on Twitter and Facebook; the structure of the platforms themselves, designed to maximize engagement, increase connectedness, and promote instant reactions to news, deserve more of the blame.
That isn’t to say false advertising is good or harmless. Attempts to remedy it may not be, however. Facebook has already been embroiled in controversy over how it moderates its newsfeed feature; the introduction of third-party fact checking has done little to quell concerns, as has the utter failure of fact checkers at institutions like the Washington Post or Snopes to carve out reputations as disinterested, trustworthy, experts.
Not only entangled in accusations of political bias and sloppiness, fact-checkers suffer from a larger problem: people don’t care what they have to say. Why listen to some buzzkill journalist when you can just enjoy Hannity triggering the libs or AOC roasting conservatives on Twitter?
But if independent groups have not succeeded, calls for social media firms to fact-check, and potentially censor, political speech are, to say the least, shortsightedness seeking to address. The policing of by speech massive, unaccountable corporations is not democratic. Adjudicating the truth or falsity of dodgy statements by political campaigns should be messy and contested. But banning all advertising isn’t neutral either.
Google famously banned all online advertising relating to the campaign to repeal Ireland’s 8th Amendment, giving the repeal side a massive boost, as it enjoyed an advantage in traditional media. Not making a decision was in itself a decision.
But with the generally positive response of legislators to this move, the stakes for Twitter (and Facebook) have become clearer. As political pressure from both sides of the aisle increases for Silicon Valley, firms will have to learn to navigate their new reality. No longer representing futuristic optimism, viewed as symbols of political dysfunction and corruption, the great social networks are slowly beginning to reckon with the damage, or at least seek cover for their failures.